Much Ado About Nothing is one of those problematic Shakespearean comedies, where changing mores of the last four hundred years can leave modern audiences puzzled at best, repelled at worst.
On the one hand, the story of the witty sparring lovers, Beatrice (Siobhan Redmond) and Benedick (Alex Jennings), is ageless and has guaranteed Much Ado About Nothing a perennial place in theatre repertoire. The plot surrounding the second pair of lovers, Hero (Emily Bruni) and Claudio (Rhashan Stone), is a much more difficult one.
Hero, daughter of the governor of Messina, attracts the amorous attentions of Claudio, a young soldier. His commander, the Prince of Aragon (Peter Wight), woos Hero on Claudio's behalf. Just before the wedding, the men are persuaded, through the plotting of the evil Don John (Damian Lewis) that Hero has been unchaste. They denounce her in church on her wedding day. Although a happy, double-wedding ending is eventually achieved, the sheer cruelty of this scene can't be underplayed. The Prince and Claudio are in effect destroying Hero with their public accusation, leaving her for dead - even her father rejects her. The girl's youth and fragility is conveyed well by Bruni, in her first theatre role.
Many of the subtleties of character and plot emerge well under Michael Boyd's direction. Beatrice, bantering with the Prince, suddenly pauses, afraid she has gone too far. Wight's Prince is a polished boulevardier but also one prepared to abuse his power.
Jennings' Benedick is a charming, foppish wit in the Hugh Grant mould - all raised eyebrows and paced delivery. He carries off the tedious slapstick scenes interjected into the action with suprising aplomb. Redmond's comic timing is also admirable, but she is a gawky Beatrice - a shrewish, spinster cousin, rather than the girl born under a dancing star, to speak all mirth and no matter. After the denouncement of Hero, she powerfully commands her new-found lover to 'kill Claudio'. However, in the exchange that follows, where we should see Beatrice at her most thrilling and magnificent, much of the force of the dialogue is lost in hysteria. 'We are too wise to woo well', Benedick tells Beatrice. In this production, while there is certainly a cerebral connection between the pair, there is a distinct lack of physical passion.
Finally, a note on Tom Piper's deep Palladian-style set. Much maligned, the design is unfortunate for anyone in the side seats, but impressively deceptive when viewed from the centre of the auditorium. Sadly, the play's theme of deception and 'seeming' is overplayed through the foolish frequency of two-way mirrors and picture frames.